At one level, the act of writing is the same for all writers. We sit (or stand!) at our computer and press the keys with our fingers. Some may still enjoy the act of picking up a pen and writing in a notebook, but the mechanics are basically the same.
Letter after letter, word after word.
In practice though, the specifics of how we write can be worlds apart. James Clear in his blog, has a great list of the writing habits of twelve of the world’s most famous writers so I’m not going to repeat that (although it’s definitely worth a read).
And while I am certainly not on the same level as Maya Angelou or Ernest Hemingway, I am still a writer, and probably so are you, and by nature writers are curious and chatty – so here is how I write:
I usually wake between 4.30am and 5.30am. I don’t actually like waking this early, but it’s become habit over the years and if the number on my clock starts with a 4 (as opposed to a 3 in which case I roll over and try to go back to sleep) I will start my process.
Conveniently, this involves lying in the dark thinking about the scene I need to write next, fleshing out the details and dialogue, all the while still tucked up in bed. The mornings I think about my characters, perhaps try and picture them in my head, the setting, how they might have responded to the last thing I wrote, are the mornings when the words flow more freely.
When I blunder out of bed and head straight to the screen, I usually find myself staring at the blank page for ages, which in turn sends me into a panic because I’m wasting precious time. I should point out that I usually have a detailed chapter outline and plot that I am working to, so I already know the bones of what will happen in each chapter. It’s the details I need to imagine in my head while still curled up in my blankets.
I keep a kettle in my ensuite and one of the last things I do before bed [coffee purists look away NOW] is make up a little jar of Jarrah coffee, extra instant coffee and sugar. While the kettle is boiling and I am resisting the urge to look at my phone, I just need to tip everything into my B-Max mug and top up with a little cold water. I normally have plenty of milk in my coffee, but the act of walking downstairs, and the chance I might bump into another human, is enough to throw me off my writing game. So it’s instant coffee and I’m fine with that.
My study is just opposite my bedroom, so it’s on with the slippers and dressing gown, rub the dog’s belly when she wakes up, then turn on the fairy lights that are strung around my room. Together with a desk lamp, they are just enough light to work by, and not so bright I burn my eyes out before properly waking.
I usually work in Scrivener, and I will read the last few paragraphs of what I have written to get me up to speed and then I will (hopefully) just launch in. I aim to write a minimum of 500 words before I reluctantly finish by 7am when I have to wake the kids and start prodding them to get ready. Thursdays are my least favourite because I have to finish before 6am to get one of my daughters to band practice. Weekends are the best because I can write until 8am, 9am, 10am before I get hungry and need to hunt and gather some food.
I’m in the privileged position where the paid work I do can be done from home. This means that I am flexible and if I am on a writing roll and there are words that need to be written, as soon as the kids are at school I can sit back down and write. This rarely happens though, and if I do have time during the day it’s usually spent editing, researching, plotting, blogging, doing coursework or reading. For some reason I tend to do the bulk of my creative work in those dark hours at the start of my day, before the world has intruded, before I remember that I have three kids and a job and a house to clean and a dog to walk (just kidding, I rarely walk the dog).
At the end of each session, when I am working on a first draft – like I am at the moment – I tally up the word count and write it on my wall calendar. It’s incredibly motivating seeing that number creep up and the day I scribble a huge circle and write ‘finished’ is always special. Then the work really starts, but finishing a first draft, no matter how shoddy and full of holes it may be, is an achievement worth celebrating.
Don’t aim for perfection
I don’t agonise over every word, but I do consider language carefully. I aim for my first draft to be pretty polished in terms of language, although I know I will certainly have to redraft in terms of story (and pace and consistency and everything else). When it comes down to it, I would rather leave a dodgy sentence in italics, or even a bunch of crosses to indicate further research is needed. As they say, it is easier to edit than write. That being said, I’ve left entire scenes and chapters unwritten if they’re too hard just so I can keep my writing momentum going.
At the end, regardless of whether it’s a short story of 2,000 words or a novel clocking in at 85,000, I then run the piece through Grammarly. Like me, Grammarly is fallible. It doesn’t like my syntax, says I am too verbose and thinks I’m American. At least half of what it picks up is unhelpful for me, but it always detects a handful of major errors I’m grateful to see the back of, usually repeating words words. I seem to do that a lot.
I am a terrible speller and I also find it difficult to see errors (read why my brain is a cheat and liar) so recently I started to use the read-aloud function to read me my story. This is usually when I hear most of my mistakes and to be honest, I find it a much more valuable tool than Grammarly.
I am fortunate to have a fabulous writing group who have been critiquing one of my novels. It’s incredibly valuable to have different people look at my work and the conversations we have about small issues (specific word choice, technical details) and big issues (characterisation and plot) are priceless. It’s a relatively slow process though, and I am by nature impatient, so I also work with the fabulous Brooke Dunnell as my mentor. We work in much longer chunks of text (up to 20,000 words or an entire manuscript) and can look at the big picture issues.
My sister is usually the first person to read all of my books. As an engineer, she has a sharp eye for the tiny details and inconsistencies that pepper my story.
Only once have I ever sent my book out to a much larger group of beta readers, a terrifying and rewarding process I wrote about here.
How do I know when it’s done?
If I am honest, I am the sort of writer to send out books underdone rather than overcooked. This is partly because – as I mentioned – I am impatient. I’m also a hopeless optimist and just expect that publishers and judges will ‘get it’ even if it’s not as polished as it should be.
This may end up being my major undoing and one day I will discover that instead of being hopelessly optimistic, I am simply hopeless.
But I also love starting on new projects and have no shortage of ideas of what I want to do next. Since starting writing in earnest in 2017 I have written a book a year, and I often work on two projects at a time.
Of those books, one will be published next year, one is in the bottom drawer awaiting a full re-structure, one is out on submission, one is ‘mostly’ finished but needs a lot of work and one is my current WIP, having hit 17,000 words this morning.
Mix it up
My genre is a mixed bag: a non-fiction book for children, two historical fiction, one contemporary fiction and one literary fiction. I have the outline for a series of decodable chapter books for kids and have been toying with the idea of memoir. I like trying new things although it does make it difficult to explain what I do in a single sentence.
My grab-bag of genres is reflected in my hodgepodge of writing processes. While I covered the mechanics of how I write above, I have tried everything from 100% pantsing, to detailed plotting. I have written in a linear fashion from start to finish as well as jumping about, writing scenes from all over the book then attempting to fill in the gaps (not recommended). Sometimes I do the bulk of my research before I start, more often I research as I go.
It’s safe to say that my writing process is fairly fluid, and I am still determining what works best for me.
Read every day
Probably the most consistent thing about my process is that every night I must read in bed before I go to sleep. Since I wake so early, I don’t function terribly well by dinner time; you won’t get an intelligent conversation out of me let alone a coherent written sentence. Often I am crawling into bed with a book when some of my writing group are sitting down at their laptops starting their writing.
But I must read, all genres, every night before I go to sleep, even when I am so tired I am peering at the words with one eye closed because the effort to have two eyes open is too much.
Don’t feel guilty
One thing I have been trying to control over the years – especially lately when so much of our lives is uncontrollable – is not to let myself feel too much guilt over the things I am not doing. As writers we often start sentences with ‘I should be…’
I should be entering more short story competitions.
I should be writing more than 500 words a day.
I should be plotting that series of books.
I should be planning world-domination.
I should do that load of washing.
I should pick up the kids from school.
When I hear these words slip from my lips, I ask myself ‘who told you to do this?’
If the only person I have to answer to is myself, then I really need to decide if it’s a pie-in-the-sky bucket list kind of thing, or if it’s something I’m actually able to achieve at this point in time.
Being patient with and kind to myself is something I am working on and I remind myself that these things will happen all in good time (hopelessly optimistic, remember).
Except I really do need to remember to get the kids from school…